Most in this audience have heard about ASEAN. But I believe few have a good idea of what ASEAN is trying to achieve. Let me take this opportunity to share with you what ASEAN is doing by offering three different perspectives. Firstly, what Leaders of the ten ASEAN Member Countries have agreed to achieve by the year 2020. Secondly, how this will benefit all in the ASEAN region. And thirdly, what legal problems ASEAN is facing.

ASEAN Leaders’ Vision

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), was established in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. It was conceived then as a loosely-organized inter-governmental organization of like-minded countries (all ardently anti-communist) for building confidence through regional cooperation. The founding Member Countries cited in the ASEAN Declaration of 8 August 1967 as their first objective the acceleration of economic growth, social progress and cultural development. But it was obvious that ASEAN was founded for political and security reasons.

One underlying belief in ASEAN then – which remains valid until now – was that security of each ASEAN Member Country could best be maintained through national resilience and national development efforts “free from external interference in any form or manifestation.” Good neighbourliness and effective regional cooperation would enhance national security and create regional peace, stability and resilience. The belief was, and still is, that “countries of Southeast Asia share a primary responsibility for strengthening the economic and social stability of the region”.

The common concern of the founding Member Countries was in preventing interference by external powers in their respective domestic affairs as well as, though not explicitly spelled out, containing communist China. (The Philippines and Thailand, in fact, provided air and naval bases for the U.S. and sent troops to join the U.S. forces in fighting communist insurgents in South Viet Nam.) All of them were preoccupied with their individual nation-building, national security and development. They lacked a common vision for Southeast Asia as a region. To them at that time, ASEAN was first and foremost a diplomatic instrument for confidence-building.

Fast forward to 2005. ASEAN now has ten Member Countries : Brunei Darussalam joined in January 1984; Viet Nam joined in July 1995; Laos and Myanmar in July 1997; and Cambodia in April 1999. The admission of Viet Nam into ASEAN represented a historic paradigm shift in Southeast Asia — ideological differences no longer mattered. The stage was set for more meaningful regional cooperation in ASEAN.

ASEAN Vision 2020

In 1997, the ASEAN Heads of State/Government (ASEAN Leaders) adopted the ASEAN Vision 2020, which envisioned the future ASEAN as “A concert of Southeast Asian nations, outward looking, living in peace, stability and prosperity, bonded together in partnership in dynamic development and in a community of caring societies”.

The ASEAN Vision 2020 embodies ASEAN’s commitment “to moving towards closer cohesion and economic integration, narrowing the gap in the level of development among Member Countries”. It also puts in place a process towards ASEAN economic integration linking the economies of Member Countries into “a stable, prosperous and highly competitive ASEAN Economic Region in which there is a free flow of goods, services and investments, a freer flow of capital, equitable economic development and reduced poverty and socio-economic disparities”. As a major step towards realizing the ASEAN Vision 2020, ASEAN implemented the Hanoi Plan of Action (1999-2004).

At the 9th ASEAN Summit in Bali in October 2003, the ASEAN Vision 2020 was further crystallized and refined. Under the Declaration of ASEAN Concord II (the Bali Concord II), the ASEAN Leaders spelled out their commitment to build a dynamic, cohesive, resilient, and integrated ASEAN Community, which would be supported by the three pillars of political and security cooperation, economic cooperation, and socio-cultural cooperation. These three pillars are conceptualized in more concrete forms as the ASEAN Security Community, the ASEAN Economic Community, and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. Let me briefly elaborate the essentials in each of them.

The ASEAN Security Community (ASC) will bring ASEAN’s political and security cooperation to a higher plane. Under the ASC there are five key components, namely:

(a) Political Development, including enhancing of the political environment through measures like promoting human rights and obligations, free flow of information, strengthening of legal infrastructure, more participation of parliamentarians, business groups and other non-governmental bodies, and combatting / preventing corruption;

(b) Shaping and Sharing of Norms to contribute to the building of a “just, democratic and harmonious environment”, including the formulation of an ASEAN Charter, ASEAN Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement, and the study of a possible ASEAN extradition treaty;

(c) Conflict Prevention, including working towards greater transparency and understanding of defence policies and the convening of an annual ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, promoting maritime security cooperation, and strengthening cooperation to address threats and challenges posed by separatism;

(d) Conflict Resolution, including a commitment to work towards innovative modalities and arrangements to maintain regional peace and security; and

(e) Post-Conflict Peace Building to secure peace and prevent a resurgence of conflicts through humanitarian assistance, human resource development, education, reconstruction in the affected areas, and so on.

The ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) is being built on the foundation of the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and other existing economic cooperation schemes such as the ASEAN Investment Area, ASEAN services liberalization and e-ASEAN ICT infrastructure. As the first major step towards the AEC, ASEAN is accelerating liberalization in eleven priority integration sectors (electronics, e-ASEAN, healthcare, wood-based products, automotives, rubber-based products, textiles and apparels, agro-based products, fisheries, air travel and tourism). Trade of goods and services in these eleven sectors among ASEAN Member Countries is planned to be fully liberalized by the year 2010. Another important step is the improvement of the ASEAN Dispute Settlement Mechanism (DSM). (This will be further discussed in the third section below on ASEAN and Lawyers.)

The ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) will cover most of what the bureaucrats call “functional cooperation” and will bind ASEAN Member Countries together in improving the quality of life of all in ASEAN in four core areas of cooperation, with the engagement of the business sector and civil society, namely:

(a) Building a community of caring societies;

(b) Managing the social impact of economic integration;

(c) Enhancing environmental sustainability; and

(d) Strengthening the foundations of regional social cohesion.

The Vientiane Action Programme (VAP) is the second in a series of action plans after the Hanoi Plan of Action that will take ASEAN towards the ASEAN Community by 2020. It was adopted at the 10th ASEAN Summit in Vientiane in November 2004 to be the blueprint for ASEAN’s community-building in each of the three pillars over the next six years. (Details of all these ASEAN documents can be found on the ASEAN Secretariat’s web site at : www.aseansec.org .)

ASEAN and the Laymen

I have described the ASEAN Leaders’ vision of ASEAN. Now, let us try to find out how is ASEAN relevant to the more than 536 million people in our region. Should the man in the street care whether ASEAN will succeed in building the ASEAN Community or not?

On this question, I like to look at it this way: In 34 months, when I complete my term as the Secretary-General of ASEAN at the end of 2007, I will move on to a life where issues of ASEAN do not consume me 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Would I still want to see the ASEAN Community become a reality? My simple and honest answer is ‘yes’ and I will explain why.

In a nutshell, the ASEAN Security Community is about Peace; the ASEAN Economic Community is about Prosperity; and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community is about People. These three elements of Peace, Prosperity and People are at the core of a strong ASEAN Community. And a strong and resilient ASEAN Community benefits us all. Let me elaborate.

Peace and the ASEAN Security Community

Peace is a prerequisite for sustained prosperity. But regional stability is not something we can take for granted. The Founding Fathers of ASEAN who lived through the Confrontation, communist insurgencies and the war in Viet Nam of the 1960s and 1970s knew that.

So while we may be citizens of different Southeast Asian countries, we do not live in isolation from our neighbours in ASEAN. Many of the problems that threaten peace and stability, for example, terrorism and drugs trafficking, are trans-boundary in nature. Interdependence and effective cooperation will help us preserve regional stability. Effective regional cooperation and beneficial collaboration comes about from first knowing our neighbours and learning how to work with one another in win-win activities.

Over its 37-year existence, ASEAN Member Countries have developed what is widely known as the “ASEAN Way” of regional cooperation. It is aimed at building confidence through a long-term working relationship based on equality, trust, mutual respect, non-interference, and a shared ethos of cooperation. This is not always easy given the diverse social and political backgrounds, cultures, ethnicities and religions that shape each Member Country’s perspective. Tolerance and patience are hallmarks of moving things along in the ASEAN Way, always going step-by-step at a speed that leaves no one behind, and painstakingly build consensus through friendly consultations.

This is certainly not the most efficient way to get things done. But it works. At least, the ASEAN Way helps move all ASEAN Member Countries forward together at a pace comfortable to all. We are at peace with one another and with the world at large. We have this to thank for being able to live in an atmosphere of peace in our region.

With peace and stability in place, we in ASEAN can focus on promoting prosperity.

Prosperity and the ASEAN Economic Community

Prosperity, according to ASEAN’s philosophy, is to be shared. All the ASEAN economies are interdependent. Problems in one economy can have knock-on effects on neighbouring economies. The financial crisis of 1997/1998 was a clear case in point. As such, Member Countries consciously pursue “prosper thy neighbour” policies to ensure the long-term prosperity of the ASEAN region.

Globalization has brought about both opportunities and challenges. Over the last decade, the countries of Southeast Asia have enjoyed rapid economic growth but have also lived through a financial crisis that plunged many into poverty. Economic competition everywhere has become more intense. Erecting barriers and looking inwards is not the way to face the force of globalization. Member Countries know this and thus they are looking outwards and building bridges and economic partnerships. They see the advantage of standing together as an integrated regional market and production base instead of trying to go it alone.

The basic indicators in the following table show how ASEAN Member Countries fare when compared with others :